[Humanist] 27.619 the social conditions of our work

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 14 08:16:51 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 619.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2013 18:24:58 +0200
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the social conditions of our work

At the still ongoing Twelfth Workshop on Treebanks and Linguistic 
Theories (TLT12, http://www.bultreebank.org/TLT12/) António Branco 
(Lisbon), in "Reliability and Meta-reliability of Language Resources: 
Ready to initiate the Integrity Debate", provoked vigorous discussion 
that badly needs to spread out into the rest of the academic world. He 
raised the question of how the development of language resources could 
aspire to first class status as scientific work ("scientific" here meant 
in the European sense). But at least for me what jumped out of this 
question was great concern for the social conditions of intellectual 
work. These, I would argue, lead rather directly to the shocking problems 
Branco detailed in his paper: the extent not just of fraud and carelessness
in scientific work ("scientific" now meant in the usual Anglophone sense) 
but the failure to be able to verify, i.e. replicate, results across the natural 
sciences and medicine.

Branco detailed "worrying signs that, in what concerns mature and well 
established scientific fields, scientific activities and results may be 
untrustable to an extent larger than the possibly expected and 
acceptable. That this issue has recently hit the mass media is but an 
indicator of the volume and relevance of these signs, whose assessment 
and discussion became unavoidable across all sectors of the 
international scientific system."

From the mass media he cited the following:

"Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab", The Economist, 19 October 2013.
Michael Hiltkik, "Science has Lost its Way, at a big Cost to Humanity", 
Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2013.
Carl Zimmer, "A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform", The 
New York Times, 16 April 2012.
Sharon Begley, "In Cancer Science, Many 'Discoveries' don't Hold up", 
Reuters, 28 March 2012.
Gautam Nail, "Scientists' Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results", The 
Wall Street Journal, 2 December 2011.

The accepted and much publicized goal of scientific research, we all 
know, is to produce results that are totally independent of the 
researcher, time and place. Results have to be replicable. Some of the 
not-holding-up is indeed due to fraud, some to carelessness, some to hurry. 
But there are two issues here that concern those of us not in the 
natural sciences.

The social issue is the pressure put on academics for publishable 
results and how some, or perhaps many, respond. During this same 
workshop Fr Roberto Busa's meticulousness was cited as the ideal that it 
is. But, I thought, consider the social conditions under which that 
great Jesuit scholar worked, and compare those with the conditions which 
afflict most of us now. Is this not an issue about which we should 
raise our collective voice? Why, I wonder, do we appear to be so helpless 
in the face of the corps of managers?

The other issue is raised e.g. by Evelyn Fox Keller in her subtle and 
powerful essay, "The Dilemma of Scientific Subjectivity in Postvital 
Culture", in The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power, 
ed. Peter Galison and David J. Stump (Stanford, 1996). This issue is the 
systematic erasure of the human actor in scientific research -- the 
creation of the abstract "scientist" in the 2nd half of the 19C "who 
could speak for everyman but was no-man, in a double sense: not any 
particular man, and also a site for the not-man within each and every 
particular observer." Keller cites Brian Rotman's very fine study, 
Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, in which he studies "the 
progressive loss of the anteriority of things to signs throughout 
European culture".

So, a social problem and a philosophical problem, tightly interconnected.

Like the scholars at this conference we have yet to figure out 
how to assess much of what we do. So, perhaps, at least as far as the 
philosophical problem is concerned, we have a chance to work out a way 
of saying "good" that can stand and be relied on without having to mean 
"good for everyman, and therefore no-man". But, then, the social problem 
cannot be avoided. The mindless, compelled rush into print, the silly chasing 
of public impact exercises, the following of grant money rather than one's 
developing interests, the bandwagon jumping etc. etc. harms us all. Do we 
lack the courage of our convictions because we've lost the convictions?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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